A legislative committee will hold a public hearing next week on a heating and energy assistance bill roughly two weeks after Republican lawmakers in the Maine Senate blocked passage of the emergency measure because they said the process was rushed.
Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, both Democrats, announced Friday that a special, temporary committee will hear public comment on the $474 million proposal on Wednesday at 1 p.m. The centerpiece of the bill, as proposed by Gov. Janet Mills, is a plan to send $450 “relief” checks to more than 880,000 Maine taxpayers as a way to cushion the financial blow caused by rising prices for heating oil, kerosene and electricity this winter.
The bill passed the House on a bipartisan, 125-16 vote last week during the first day of the new legislative session. But it stalled in the Senate after Republicans said a spending plan of that magnitude should be reviewed by a legislative committee and be the subject of a public hearing. But legislative committees have not been formally set up yet because the Legislature is not slated to begin meeting regularly until early-January.
So after more than a week of uncertainty, Jackson and Talbot Ross on Friday announced a temporary membership of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee – comprised largely of Democratic and Republican leaders as well as previous budget committee members – to hold next week’s hearing.
“We heard from our Senate Republican colleagues and to some extent the House, even though they did support it, that they wanted the process followed,” Jackson said in an interview on Friday. “So Wednesday we’ll have the hearing and let people come and testify in support or opposition or however they feel. We’ll also hear from Commissioner (Kirsten) Figueroa about where the money is coming from and how it is not affecting other programs that are important to people across the state.”
Mills and Democratic leaders had hoped to pass the emergency bill on opening day of the Legislature in order to allow Figueroa’s agency, the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, to begin working on sending out the relief checks. In response to requests from House Republicans, Mills had broadened eligibility of the relief checks to include individuals making less than $100,000 or couples earning less than $200,000.
Funding for the emergency relief would come largely from a budget surplus as well as unbudgeted funds from elsewhere in state government. In order to become effective immediately, the bill requires two-thirds support in both the House and Senate.
The bill, as currently written, would also provide an additional $40 million to the Home Energy Assistance Program often referred to as LIHEAP and $10 million for emergency programs that provide heating fuel to households who are in financial crisis. Additionally, the bill contains $21 million in emergency housing assistance to help people who are about to lose federal COVID-era rental and housing assistance.
The Republican minority leaders in the House and Senate, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Sen. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, said in statements that they were pleased an agreement was reached on holding a public hearing.
“We were all sent to Augusta to work for our constituents, not to work against the other party,” Faulkingham said. “That is why I am pleased to join with the leaders of the 3 other caucuses to hold a public hearing on the Governor’s Energy Relief bill. I’m confident that after thorough public review and input, the legislature will be able to move swiftly to deliver relief for the people of Maine.”
In a statement, Mills added: “I know that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike in the Legislature are committed to addressing this serious issue in a significant and timely way, and I am hopeful that this bipartisan move will provide us with a path forward to enacting this bill and delivering help immediately.”
Heating oil was averaging $4.50 a gallon statewide this week. While that is down significantly from a high of nearly $6 a gallon in May, it is still 43 percent higher than one year ago. Kerosene, meanwhile, was averaging $6.72 a gallon while the average statewide price for propane was $3.29 this week, according to the Governor’s Energy Office.
It was unclear Friday whether the temporary committee will also consider an alternative proposal offered by two senators, Republican Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford and Democratic Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth. Their proposal had a much smaller price tag because it restricted relief checks to households earning 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $60,000 for a married couple.
Jackson said it was hopeful but not necessarily confident that lawmakers will be able to do act quickly given last week’s events.
“If this truly is about the process and people having a chance to have a public hearing, then that’s going to happen and hopefully we can agree on something and do it quickly,” Jackson said.
This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.